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Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a study shows, challenging the Obama administration's conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change.
A $500,000 study paid for by the federal government and released Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change concludes that biofuels made with corn residue release 7 percent more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline.
The conclusions deal a blow to what are known as cellulosic biofuels, which have received more than a billion dollars in federal support but have struggled to meet volume targets mandated by law. About half of the initial market in cellulosics is expected to be derived from corn residue.
The Energy Department plans to provide a $105 million loan guarantee for the expansion of an ethanol factory in Emmetsburg, Iowa, to make motor fuel from corncobs, leaves and husks.
The loan guarantee is the first by Energy for cellulosic ethanol. But the Department of Agriculture announced $405 million in loan guarantees in January. Coskata, a company backed by General Motors and Khosla Ventures, got a guarantee for $250 million for a plant in Boligee, AL. Enerkem, in Montreal, got an $80 million guarantee for a plant in Pontotoc, MS. Ineos Bio got a $75 million guarantee for a biorefinery in Vero Beach, Fla.
The biofuel industry and administration officials immediately criticized the research as flawed.
The research is among the first to attempt to quantify, over 12 Corn Belt states, how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere when the stalks, leaves and cobs that make up residue are removed and used to make biofuel, instead of left to naturally replenish the soil with carbon. The study found that regardless of how much corn residue is taken off the field, the process contributes to global warming.
"I knew this research would be contentious," said Adam Liska, the lead author and an assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "I'm amazed it has not come out more solidly until now."
EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said that the study "does not provide useful information relevant to the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn stover ethanol." But an AP investigation last year found that the EPA's analysis of corn-based ethanol failed to predict the environmental consequences accurately.
"The study says it will be very hard to make a biofuel that has a better greenhouse gas impact than gasoline using corn residue," which puts it in the same boat as corn-based ethanol, said David Tilman, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has done research on biofuels' emissions from the farm to the tailpipe.
Tilman said it was the best study on the issue he has seen so far.